Volcano Veggies LLC partners Shannon and James Sbarra celebrated a big win this week, another in a series of wins they say is helping their Bend-based aquaponic startup to grow.
The company, which grows organic lettuce, kale and basil and other herbs in an indoor aquaponic system that also raises tilapia, won a $25,000 prize from the Wells Fargo Works Project, along with six months of mentorship from a business specialist. The bank contest attracted more than 4,200 entries from around the country. Five, including Volcano Veggies, were named grand prize winners.
“We feel honored and blessed,” Shannon Sbarra said Tuesday. “We think we were selected because our business concept is something that touches what’s important in our community.”
Doug Case, Wells Fargo small business segment manager, said the Sbarras’ focus on their business mission impressed the selection panel. That, and the way the couple explained their company origins, Case said. Their interest in fresh, healthy food arose when Pam Sbarra, James’ mother, was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, according to the Volcano Veggies contest essay. The Sbarras wanted to support Pam Sbarra in her fight by switching with her to a healthier diet. Yet, they found their local grocery store in Wyoming provided little in the way of a fresh selection of vegetables. They set out to build a business that solved that problem for communities in cold environments.
“That was a great story and it was told in a concise way,” Case said. “And they were very clear about what they would do with the prize money and how they could benefit from mentorship.”
With the money, the Sbarras plan on building a third aquaponic system. The company, which incorporated last year, is expanding inside the 2,000-square-foot warehouse it occupies on NE Second Street, Shannon Sbarra said. Their next aquaponic system will be twice as large as the existing systems.
The Sbarras guard the details of their proprietary aquaponic system, but it basically combines a hydroponic growing operation with a fish tank. The fish provide another marketable food source, their waste provides fertilizer and the water is recycled through the plants. The operation is certified organic, Shannon Sbarra said.
“We want to grow more products and expand our capacity here in Bend,” she said, “and prove it’s a profitable model of a small farm.”
Volcano Veggies, so far, supplies a community-supported agriculture program and also sells produce at Newport Market. The problem is the company’s limited production capacity, Sbarra said.
“Sales are not a huge problem for us; we’ve been sold out since we started,” she said. “People get upset with us because we don’t have enough supply.”
Sbarra said she and her husband want to include strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and herbs in their produce selection, and to broaden the company’s reach. Until then, like many startups, it’s striving for its first profitable year and for further investment, she said.
Last year, Volcano Veggies took the concept-stage award of $10,000 from the Bend Venture Conference and $4,000 more in two other awards. Sbarra said the company has set a goal of 100 new subscribers to its community-supported agriculture program, which would net another $100,000.
“Our vision is nationwide,” Shannon Sbarra said. “There are a lot reasons — health, economic and environmental — why this is an important way to grow food.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7815,